When Peter Shankman joined AOL to help create it’s customer-facing newsroom, he was so early in the game that his AOL email address was peter@aol.com. The first rule for his team came directly from AOL’s CEO, Steve Case, and boiled down to this: Keep AOL’s users online as long as possible.

Peter Shankman

AOL charged customers by the hour in those days (remember that?), and longer Internet sessions meant higher revenue. It was simple math.

In the first keynote of Monetate’s 4th annual Summit, which kicked off today, Shankman told attendees that Case’s rule still applies today.

Today, though, succeeding is far more difficult.

With that story, and through that lens, Shankman framed a speech on “nailing customer loyalty in the era of the distracted customer.” And according to Shankman, success comes down to acing four rules:

1. Be transparent

Shankman guaranteed the audience that, at some point, each brand represented at Summit would “screw up.” These days, that “screw up” will be found out in six seconds, Shankman said.

To combat that, be transparent. Own your mistake and move on.

Shankman illustrated the point with several recent stories that grabbed headlines (and/or trended on Twitter), but he spent the most time talking about President Barack Obama’s communication strategy after the Tom Daschle scandal.

With media ready to pounce, Obama agreed to do the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows. When the first interviewer asked him about Daschle, Shankman recalled, Obama leaned back in his chair, put his hand in his pocket and said, “We screwed up, huh?”

The result?

It shut down the conversation, eliminated drama from the show and forced the host to move on. Obama won the conversation by owning the mistake, Shankman said.

2. Be relevant

If you could boost revenue by 37% and, at the same time, cut operational costs by a half million dollars, Shankman said, your boss would buy you a “really, really good beer.”

The secret to scoring that level of gratitude isn’t much of a secret at all, Shankman said. It’s just something we ignore too frequently: relevance.

With customers become fractured audiences distracted by several different channels of communication, the most important step to being relevant is engaging your customers on the channels they prefer. To find out what channel that is, companies need to ask their customers questions. According to Shankman, less than 10% of companies actually engage their customer base in this way. And this comes at a time when you have more ways than ever to ask them those questions.

If you do it, Shankman said, your customers are “going to shock you with the answers. Because they’re nothing like what you thought.”

3. Be brief

A recent Stanford study showed that the average attention span of a new customer is 2.7 seconds, Shankman said. If you can’t relay your message to a new customer in that time period, it likely means you don’t have good enough copywriters.

Underscoring that point, Shankman told the audience that one in two companies have a spelling or grammar error on their homepage. It’s good for “LOLz,” but not for customer engagement.

So, be brief, and don’t be relegated to “LOLz” status.

4. Be top of mind

Shankman’s last rule was also his most important, he said.

Being top of mind is important today because customers have more choices than ever. It’s easy for them to forget about you.

Shankman told the crowd that when Barry Diller took over as the head of Paramount Pictures, he started each day by calling 10 people in his Rolodex. He cycled through his list of contacts, and hit each of them three to four times a year.

If you were in Barry’s Rolodex, you were hearing from the CEO of a major motion picture studio on a quarterly basis. It was an unprecedented level of access to someone at that level in Hollywood, and it left an impression. When the filmmakers reached out to the studios with potential movies to pitch, Diller was top of mind.

It was a strategy that helped Barry turn Paramount into the first billion-dollar studio in Hollywood.

Concluding his keynote, Shankman illustrated how easy it is for customers to abandon loyalty: It used to take three weeks and five visits to switch banks, Shankman said. Today? You can do that online with a click of a button.

“Be amazing to the customers you have,” Shankman said in concluding. “They’ll give you the customers you want.”

Photo courtesy of Scott Spitzer Photography.